The Seventies were a decade of smashing taboos in filmmaking: in dialogue, depictions of history, and the image of the leading man.
The 1970s saw a huge shift in the way that Hollywood made movies. The old studio system where an actor was bound to a studio by contract had collapsed and the self-imposed censorship started in the mid 1930s by the Hayes Office was dying as well. Young visionary directors like Hal Ashby, Robert Altman and William Friedkin were making movies that would break almost all the social taboos religiously adhered to by the old Hollywood moguls. Here are five movies that changed the way movies were made and the way we watched them.
1. The Graduate (1967). Mike Nichols directed this groundbreaking film based on the 1963 novel of the same name by Charles Webb. Dustin Hoffman starring in his first film shattered the tall, dark and handsome image of a Hollywood screen idol. Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock, a recent college graduate who on the verge of turning twenty-one has no plans other than to return home to California. He enters into an illicit affair with Mrs. Robinson, a married woman and friend of his parents. They soon discover that aside from sex, they have nothing in common and don’t particularly like each other. The plot is further complicated when Benjamin falls for the Robinson’s beautiful daughter Elaine, a romance that Mrs. Robinson is determine to quash, no matter what the cost. A whole host of Hollywood hunks auditioned for the role of Benjamin including Robert Redford and Warren Beatty, but the part eventually went to Hoffman, which forever changed the way we look at Hollywood leading men. Another interesting side note is that director Nichols originally wanted Doris Day to play the role of Mrs Robinson, but she did not feel the part was right for her and turned it down. The soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel included the monster hit, “Mrs. Robinson” and shot up to number one in the music charts, knocking the Beatles “White Album” out of the top spot. Buck Henry wrote the screenplay and there’s a very brief appearance by Richard Dreyfus in his first screen role.
2. M*A*S*H (1970). Robert Altman directed the film based on the novel of the same name by Richard Hooker, who had been an Army surgeon in the Korean War. The story is set in Korea in 1951, but the underlying intent is Viet Nam. Two new surgeons played by Donald Sutherland and Tom Skerrit arrive at the 4077 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital a few miles from the front lines, in a stolen jeep. They shake up the outfit with their boozing and carousing and are soon joined by acclaimed heart surgeon Trapper John McIntyre, played by Elliot Gould. The movie is very funny, very bloody and broke new ground in the way dialogue was filmed. Before M*A*S*H, each conversation was recorded as the only sounds in the room: the actors speaking with no background noise. Altman depicted conversations as they are in real life, with other conversations going on all around and whatever background noise that was germane to the scene. The movie broke new ground in its frank depiction of combat injuries with blood shooting all over the screen in the O.R. scenes. It was also the first major studio release that contained the word “fuck” in the dialogue. During the filming, Altman had to fend off producers and executives from Warner Brothers as well as actors, most notably Sutherland and Gould, who constantly questioned his methods. Altman stuck to his guns and made the film he wanted. He prevailed and the film is considered a classic. The success of “M*A*S*H” paved the way for Altman to produce other classics including “Nashville” and “Gosford Park.:
3. Little Big Man (1970). When I was a kid growing up, all the Western movies and TV shows depicted Native Americans as bloodthirsty savages bent on wiping out the peace-loving white settlers who were rescued just in time by the cavalry. In “Little Big Man,” directed by Arthur Penn and based on the 1964 novel by Thomas Berger, the record was set at least somewhat straight. Dustin Hoffman plays Jack Crabb, the oldest living survivor of the Little Big Horn massacre. The film opens with one-hundred-eleven year old Jack telling his story in the day room of a nursing home. Jack who as a young white boy was adopted and raised by the Cheyenne, moves between Indian and white society. Along the way he meets such notables as Wild Bill Hickok and General Custer. Hoffman locked himself in his dressing room for an hour before filming, screaming at the top of his lungs in order to bring to life the voice of old Jack Crabb who narrated the movie. This was the first major movie to show the West from the perspective of the Indians and it was the whites, by and large, who were portrayed as the savages. The film’s portrayal of the Washita Massacre where an Indian camp populated mostly by women and children was wiped out by George A Custer and the Seventh Cavalry is heartbreaking. We would never again see a Western that portrayed Native Americans in their former light. From Soldier Blue to Dances with Wolves, the genre had changed. Faye Dunaway co-starred along with Martin Balsam and Chief Dan George, a Burrand Indian who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Old Lodge Skins, Jack’s Cheyenne grandfather. The soundtrack by John Hammond is understated and brilliant.
4. A Clockwork Orange (1971). Stanley Kubrick directed this film that was based on the novel by Anthony Burgess and starred Malcolm McDowell. The story is set in a futuristic London where gangs of teenagers terrorize its citizens and stay hopped up on a drug concoction sold at milk bars. The film is dark and extremely violent, a violence which is underscored by the classical music soundtrack that includes synthesized Beethoven. McDowell made a huge splash with his portrayal of Alex, leader of his gang of “droogs”—a word derived from Russian slang meaning “friend.” Burgess concocted a street language for the novel that incorporated Russian, English, and Cockney rhyming slang. The use of it in the novel was so extensive that Burgess included a glossary in the back of the book. The film uses the slang though not as extensively. Young Alex is convicted of the rape and murder of a woman and the brutal beating of her husband. Alex is sent to prison and then entered into an experimental government program that literally makes criminals sick at the sight of sex and violence. Alex is then thrown back into society, which is just as brutal and violent as when he left. He ends up in the home of the man whom he had crippled and is subjected to more torture. The film is not for the weak of heart or stomach but it ushered in a new era in films. Directors would no longer shy away from frank depictions of sex and violence in mainstream movies. “A Clockwork Orange” remains as disturbing today as it was in 1971 but no less powerful and it is a brilliant piece of filmmaking.
5. The Godfather (1972). Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather was an international best seller. He then collaborated with Francis Ford Coppola to turn it into a movie. The result was magnificent and its influence is felt in every gangster film since. From the onset of the talkies in the late 1920s, movie mobsters were shown as one-dimensional antisocial murderers. The tale of Vito Corleone , head of one of the five New York crime families, showed gangsters not only as sociopathic thugs but as real people who loved their wives and children, brothers and sisters. Michael Corleone, his youngest son, recently returned from the Pacific Theater as a decorated Marine, is drawn into the family business he had tried to distance himself from. The attempted murder of his father draws Michael into the murder of a rival and a corrupt police captain. He then has to flee to Sicily, leaving behind his lover, Kay, and all else that is dear to him. Michael, played by Al Pacino, becomes the central character, emerging as head of the family after the murder of his brother, Sonny. James Caan plays eldest son, Santino—Sonny—like a volcano waiting to erupt, and often does. Marlon Brando as the patriarch, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton and John Cazale round out the stellar cast. The film was shot in muted color, evoking 1940s New York. Brando won the Best Actor Academy Award and “The Godfather” was chosen as Best Picture of 1972. For my money, the sequel, “The Godfather II,” was a better movie, but without the original, there never would have been the sequel, Tony Soprano, or any of the other great gangster movies made since. “Godfather III” was made years later and does not approach the first two by any margin.
There is an excellent documentary called “A Decade Under the Influence,” about filmmaking in the 1970s. Interviews with stars and directors of the day offer a fascinating insight into the creative explosion that took place in filmmaking during that time. Polly Platt, who was married to Peter Bogdonovich at the time, tells the story of the little town in Texas where “The Last Picture Show” was shot. When the location was scouted, it was a grey overcast day and they thought it was the perfect place to tell the story of a dying town in a dying era.
When they came back to begin production it was a bright sunny day and the red brick buildings stood out in sharp contrast to the bright blue sky. Bogdonovich was in despair when, as the story goes, Orson Welles, another director far ahead of his time, boomed: “Of course you’re going to shoot it in black and white?” The result netted eight Academy Award nominations. It’s also the film debut of the Dude, Jeff Bridges.
William Friedkin broke new ground with “The French Connection.” Mike Nicholls made “Catch 22” and Louis Malle made “Pretty Baby.” All of those films followed the success of earlier visionary directors and not only broke the mold of movie making, they pulverized it.